CAIRO — New anti-terrorism legislation proposed by Egypt’s cabinet is drawing searing criticism from rights groups and lawyers that it would grant authorities far-reaching powers to quash dissent amid an already alarming slide toward authoritarianism.
Two proposed laws would expand the definition of terrorism under the Egyptian penal code, introduce new procedures for prosecuting terrorism offenses and make a cluster of new crimes — including holding a leadership position in the Muslim Brotherhood — eligible for the death penalty.
Spurred by a rise in militant attacks since the military ousted President Mohamed Morsi in July, including a recent bombing that killed a senior police officer at Cairo University, the proposals come as Egypt grapples with a burgeoning Islamist insurgency and a ferocious state crackdown on opposition groups.
Militants have killed more than 430 police officers and troops since July, according to government figures. Security forces have arrested as many as 23,000 people in that period, rights groups say.
If the draft laws, which are being debated by the cabinet, are passed and signed by interim President Adly Mansour, Egypt is likely to see a raft of new terrorism charges for both violent and nonviolent crimes, lawyers and rights advocates say.
The regime of autocrat Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted in 2011, used a sweeping emergency law and special security courts to detain dissidents and try terrorism suspects. But the scale and intensity of the current clampdown surpasses the repression of the Mubarak era, activists say.
The legislation’s provisions “potentially allow the authorities to bring a terrorism case against virtually any peaceful activist,” Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, deputy director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa program, said in a recent statement.
As it stands, the legislation broadens what constitutes terrorism under Egyptian law to include acts that “harm national unity,” “hinder the work of educational institutes” or “damage natural resources.” According to Amnesty International, that expanded definition “criminalizes strikes and peaceful demonstrations in schools, universities and those emanating from mosques.”
If the measures are adopted, anyone convicted of establishing or taking a leadership position in a group deemed to be active in terrorism would be given the death penalty. Joining such a group would carry a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison, up from five in the current penal code.
In December, the cabinet declared the Muslim Brotherhood — Egypt’s largest opposition group, which backed Morsi’s presidency — a terrorist organization, though it did not present any evidence linking the Islamist group to recent militant attacks.
Authorities have imprisoned thousands of Brotherhood leaders and tried hundreds of people on suspicion of links to the group in recent months. In one of the most notorious cases, a judge in Minya province last month sentenced to death 529 people who the court said were Brotherhood members for the murder of a police officer.
Rights advocates say the proposed laws would enable the judiciary to hand out more mass death sentences for terrorism suspects and political opponents alike. One amendment would scrap a section of the penal code that allows for judges to show leniency in capital punishment cases.
“This law is being created to limit freedoms, not to fight terrorism,” said Ahmed Ezzat, a lawyer with the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, an Egyptian rights group. The bills would also give the president the power to declare a state of emergency without consulting parliament.
On April 14, Mansour sent final drafts of the bills back to the cabinet for further discussion, but it was unclear why. Neither the Interior Ministry nor the Justice Ministry responded to inquiries about the content of the legislation.
But government supporters say the measures are necessary for Egypt to battle growing militancy, including deadly car bombings and near-daily ambushes of security checkpoints by gunmen.
Included in the changes is an amendment that would remove the requirement to seek approval from an independent authority to monitor phone calls and bank accounts. Another revision would allow security forces to detain suspects for a longer period before presenting them to the public prosecutor.
“It is a very strict law, yes, but it should be implemented strongly,” said Mohamed Talaat, director of the legal unit at the Lawyers Union for Legal and Democratic Studies. The organization, which describes itself as a pro-democracy group and gives civic training to lawyers and youths, has been publicly supportive of the government crackdown.
“Egypt is going through a critical period, and there are elements that are trying to take down the state,” he said. “We can’t talk about human rights right now. I am with any law that brings back security.”
The rising violence and instability, coupled with a growth in pro-military nationalism in the wake of Morsi’s ouster, have bolstered support for the campaign against terrorism suspects but also demonstrators and opposition activists. It is, therefore, unlikely that the cabinet will make any fundamental changes to the draft laws, Egyptian legal experts say.
“If the government decides it wants to do something, it will do it,” said Mohamed Zarea, director of the Cairo-based Arab Penal Reform Organization, which offers legal assistance to prisoners.
“It’s like Mubarak’s emergency laws, giving the state the authority to intrude in people’s lives,” Zarea added. “But the emergency law was exceptional, and it had to be renewed every few years. These laws would be permanent; they would make it seem normal.”
Sharaf al-Hourani contributed to this report.